Protests are an integral part of democracy, and special attention needs to be given to them. When citizens revolt against their governments, it gives them a chance to dismantle government structures that have failed to meet the responsibilities towards their citizens. A democracy is built on the wishes of the people and it is maintained if governments are kept in check by the citizens; if governments go unregulated, it leads to a rise in anti-government protest that either leaders acknowledge and meet the demands or are forced by citizens to build institutions that work for them. In the past years, anti-government protests have hit a significant number of authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, and democratic countries which has created an unprecedented wave of global anti-government protests. Only in the past year (2019) the world experienced anti-government protests in Guinea, Chile, Indonesia, Iraq, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, India, and Italy, to name a few.
Some of these anti-government protests, such as the protests in Guinea, Chile, Indonesia, Iraq, and Lebanon were able to continue and were still ongoing in 2020. However, this has not prevented the rise of many other anti-government protests around the world. Countries like Belarus, Bulgaria, Colombia, Egypt, India, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sudan, Poland, Thailand, and Venezuela have experienced massive anti-government protests of citizens expressing their grievances, dissatisfaction, and discontent over the government, the failures of government to live up to its functions, and governments perpetual interference in the private lives of individuals.
It appears that a new era of political flux is emerging as citizens demand more from their governments, and mobilize in pursuit of their demands; Although it’s often a difficult task to analyse the demands of anti-government protests due to their dynamic nature over time, it is often possible to factor out and analyse common environmental factors that make anti-government protests more likely. Looking specifically at past and ongoing protests in countries such as Chile, France, Lebanon, Algeria and Russia; it is possible to factor out common themes that make these anti-government protests more likely. These themes include: rapidly increasing levels of economic inequality, and a high level increase in corruption, which is the backbone of economic inequality and a grotesque virus that erodes away the rights and freedoms of individuals in any government institution.
Increasing levels of economic Inequality
Progress is not made by individuals but by societies. All over the world, there is a growing trend of individuals progressing and societies regressing, and this is mainly due to rising high standards of living. To voice frustrations and discontent, people have taken to the streets to protest; in most cases, some of these protests were sparked by seemingly small economic factors that aroused deep and dormant frustrations that people have towards their government’s failure to develop societies but rather individuals.
In Lebanon, the 2019 protests were prompted when the government announced new taxes, including a $6 monthly fee on calls on free messaging apps such as Whatsapp; In France, the yellow vest movement began when President Emmanuel Macron announced a green tax on fuel; In Chile, the protests started when the government announced that they would increase metro rush hour bus fare by 30 pesos; In all these cases, the protests turned into broader issues of economic inequality.
According to the IMF, relative to its GDP, Lebanon is the fifth most indebted nation in the world, and it had been estimated that by the end of 2019, Lebanon’s public debt would reach up to 155% of its GDP. In an attempt to create funds and pay off their burden of debt, the Lebanese government decided to impose a $6 monthly fee on free calls on messaging apps including Whatsapp. It is estimated that this monthly fee would have generated up to $250 million dollars a year, which could be used to pay off the debt. However, this move prompted anger amongst the Lebonese citizens mainly because the government had not imposed a more direct progressive tax targeting the wealthy. In 2019, youth unemployment in Lebanon was at 35 percent; according to the World Inequality Database, in 2019, the top 1% claimed nearly one-quarter of the Lebanose GDP. Research has shown that the private sector earnings are disproportionately distributed between income groups with the top 2% capturing a share of income almost as high as that of the bottom 60%. According to the UNDP 2019 report, Lebano’s Gini coefficient of Lebanon was 0.57 ( 0 meaning completely equal and 1 highly unequal) and ranked Lebanon at 129 from 141 countries in terms of income inequality; this puts Lebanon among the most unequal countries in the world.
In Europe, France was hit by the yellow vest movement protests in 2019. Although France is hailed for its generous social safety net that provides well for the least fortunate, weeks of the yellow vest protest revealed that French citizens face fears of economic uncertainty and anger towards a presidency that they felt has prioritized the economic needs of the wealthy over the economic needs of the working class of the French society. In many ways, the yellow vest protesters felt left behind. Statistics show that inequality and poverty rose in 2018. The Gini coefficient, in 2018, registered its sharpest increase since 2010, and the poverty rate of the population living below the 60% medium increased from 14.1% to 14.7%. In a blogpost for Le Monde, Thomas Piketty (a French economist, author of The Capital in the 21st century) wrote that France has experienced a sharp rise in inequality. Between 1983 and 2015, the average income of the richest 1% rose by 100% (above inflation) and the income of the top 0.1% richest by 150%, as compared with barely 25% for the rest of the population (or less than 1 % per annum). The richest 1% alone has siphoned off 21% of total growth, as compared with 20% for the poorest 50%. This data speaks to the disparities and economic divides existing in French social classes. It shows that even though the overall income of the population rose above inflation (overall increase in the price level), meaning that people actually did get richer, the richest 1% of the population got richer faster than the poorest 50% at the bottom of societies. Even though the poor did not get poorer, because their income did grow, relative to the top 1% of the richest they were still relatively poor. There is growing inequality in the French society and the green tax on fuel was the tipping point for the citizens who felt like they are being left behind.
Across the Atlantic ocean, Chileans also took to the streets to revolt against their government. Like in Lebanon and France, their anger was tipped by a 4% increase in the price of bus fare; about 30 pessor or $0.04. Although this might seem like a small increase to the average reader, for struggling Chileans who work hard every day and struggle to make ends meet, this increase in the bus fare was unbearable. High school students in Santiago (the capital city of Chile) decided to take it to the streets to protest, and sooner, university students and other civilians joined the protests. According to the New York Times, by the end of the second week, the protests had turned violent; nearly 20 people had been killed. The protests turned out to be the biggest in Chilean history drawing out more than 5% of the whole Chilean population. But what caused people to risk their lives and take to the streets to protest? Looking at the historical data, Chile had come to be considered one of Latin America’s fast-growing and most stable economies. Even though these protests shocked other countries around the world, Chileans were not shocked. Chile is considered to be Latin America’s success story.
The country came out of a dictatorship and moved to democracy in 1990. This move was followed by massive economic growth. Since 2000, the poverty rate has decreased from 31% to 6.4% in 2017. However, this is a success story with massive inequality. The lower-income population (about 50%) still earn around 400,000 Pesos a month, about 550 dollars. According to Marco Kremerman, an economist working with the Fundación Sol, this monthly salary is below the poverty line for all those who have four members in their families. The richest 1% in Chile earns a total of 33% of the total nation’s wealth, making Chile the most unequal country of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Therefore, a spike of 4% in the price of bus fare was destined to lead to massive protests with a consideration that low-income households spend about 30% of their income on transportation; And even though the president announced that the subway fare increase would be cancelled, this did not quell the protests. The shared themes of these protests are of a systematic change to address the rise in costs of living standards and stagnant wages. According to one protester, “The people who run the government are the same people who have economic power, it is a perfect circle: they pass laws to make more money, and the rest of us become poorer.’’
High levels of corruption
Corruption does not only entail the abuse of political power, it is also directly related to economic conditions, individual rights violations, and issues of fairness. In its simple and understandable definition, Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain. Corruption is the root cause of almost all the problems in a nation. Corruption weakens democracies, hinders development and increases levels of inequality, and poverty. People around the world are feeling the effect of corruption on their lives; the problem of corruption has gotten out of hand in some countries that citizens themselves have had enough and taken it to the streets in the hopes that if they can make loud enough noises, their cries will be heard and the problem will be dealt with.
In 2019 Transparency International ranked Algeria 104/180 in their corruption index. Even though this might not seem far off for an African country, it gives Algeria a score of 36/100 (0 being most corrupt and 100 no corruption at all), making corruption the main enemy to development and the functioning democracy. For the past year, thousands of Algerians have peacefully marched on the streets in protests that were mainly sparked by the announcement that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been in power for four terms (almost 20 years) would run for the 2019 elections for a fifth term. Even though president Bouteflika resigned shortly after, the protests are still ongoing, with thousands hitting the streets to protest the complete reform of the government structure and in support of amendments to the constitution to include term limits in running for the presidency.
In 1999 Algeria experienced a significant economic upsurge due to rises in the price of oil, however, since 2014, oil prices have declined, leaving the highly oil-dependent economy in turmoil. Even with the plunge in prices, Oil and gas has remained the backbone of Algerian economy accounting for about a quarter of the country’s GDP and 95% of export revenues.
Even though the resulting revenues from the earlier periods (about a trillion dollars) were used in investments for development programs during the recently resigned president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Presidency (after 20 years in power), due to reports of huge corruption, the investments failed to lift the country out of poverty and kept the economy highly dependent on oil. Massive scandals of corruption have erupted in Algeria since the 2002 “scandal of the century”. In a 2015 construction project, the courts of Algeria found that 6 billion to 17 billion dollars had been deviated from the project. Later that year, Sonatrach, one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon company also descended into corruption scandals involving corruption and money laundering charges. Even though the courts have, for the most part, indicted and sentenced people from these scandals, some of them have been released shortly after on the orders of the president. Algerians are demanding change through their consistent peaceful protests over the past years and even though president Bouteflika resigned, this only served to show how corruption was entrenched in the whole government system and who was really in power. Thousands of protesters continue to march in the streets and they will not stop until their demands of a change in the whole government personnel are met.
Outside the African continent, in Russia, protests have intensified mainly due to the main arrest of the opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Tens of thousands of people including young and old marched across 100 Russian cities to protest Putin’s regime and protests for the release of Aleksei Navalny. They gathered all over Russian cities in big crowds chatting repeatedly, “Navalny we are with you and Putin is a thief.” More than 5000 people have been detained since the protests broke out last January in an attempt by the government to quell the protests down. However, this has failed because Russian people have shown immense determination and they demand changes in their political system. The turnout has been historical in a country where political protests in the past 20 years were mainly in big cities with minor turnouts. According to Marina Shakhov, a 33-year-old sales representative who had never participated in any protests until recently, she has come out to protest the rapidly widening economic gap between the middle class and the elite. However, Shakhov is only protesting the effect of the problem (inequality) which Navalny has been able to conceal to the mainstream;the grotesque corruption in the Russian system . Simply stated, the root problem that has led to the protests and arrests of thousands in a matter of a few weeks is widespread and overwhelming corruption.
The most recent report by Transparency International ranks Russia to be the 129th most corrupt country out of 180 countries. Russia scored a score of 30/100, on the score where 0 is most corrupt and 100 not corrupt at all. These numbers put Russia at the top of the list of the most corrupt countries in Europe. However, the corruption scandal that has played a huge factor in drawing thousands of Russians to take it to the stress is the recent investigative documentary by Navalny showing a secret estate, “Putin’s palace,” which has an estimated worth of 1.35 billion dollars. According to the investigative documentary, proceeds from corruption may have been used to build the palace. In a country where thousands are unhappy with the economic situation and lack of government support, especially during the pandemic, the documentary was the last motivation they needed to take matters into their hands. Even though arrests are being made, the protests have gained momentum and they are clear in their demands: they want Putin out. In the words of a schoolteacher, “The problem in this country will never go away. And the problem is Putin.”
Many studies have not emphasized the point that the fast advancing technological world is overwhelming people. The notion that only hard work and commitment was enough to lift oneself from poverty or change one’s social status has deteriorated in today’s contemporary world. People no longer feel like they are masters of their fates. There is a general frustration among the lower class that the stakes are staged against them. Therefore, to restore the sense that they are in control of their own fates, out of frustration people all over the world are deciding to act on their own, and the best way they know is through protests. They have completely embodied the saying that if one wants something done, one needs to do it oneself, and the only way they have concluded this can be done is by expressing their anger and frustrations and revolting against their governments. Protests have been at most successful. They have achieved some set of reforms but the underlying political systems do not change, which causes people to take to the street more frequently. In all the above-mentioned countries, protests have achieved little to no change but people have not lost hope yet. Perhaps the most crucial realization that the moderns have made is that the power to build and topple governments lies in their hands and as long as this feeling is still strongly felt, governments that fail to meet their mandates or are infected with corruption will be ousted. This is a new era, it is the era of protests.
Tor Vergata University of Rome-Global Governance